20 September 2006

Rodin et les danseuses cambodgiennes

Rodin et les danseuses cambodgiennes,
-- sa dernière passion
Date : 16 June – 17 Sept 2006
Venue : Musée Rodin de Paris
Photo courtesy : Musée Rodin de Paris

In 1906, the pro-France new King of Cambodia paid a diplomatic visit to France. Coming with him were the Cambodian court dancers who performed for the French audience in Marseilles then in Paris. In the auditorium, there was the famous 66-years old sculptor, Augustine Rodin. Enthralled by the Cambodian dancers, Rodin made an immediate decision of following them to Marseilles where they would soon be boarding the return ship to Cambodia. Within a few days, this old artist had produced around 150 watercolours of the Cambodian dancers. This collection was so precious to him that he sold scarcely, gave only a few to his friends but exhibited a lot to the public. In the years to follow, he painted for Najinski and Hanako, and produced impressive sculptures after them. The dancing body series became known as the great sculptor's last passion.

As a sculptor, Rodin spent his whole life in capturing the corporal beauty in our daily life. The way we sit, we walk, we lay down; the way we kiss, the way we think, the way we suffer; the way our bodies were distorted by pain, by sorrow, by fear... To him, the soul is not trapped inside the human body by the body as the most ardent medium for the manifestation and emancipation of the abstract form. His sculptures captured this very moment of expression where our soul becomes visible in flesh and blood. There are vitality and balance in the gestures, emotions and desires in the facial expressions, harmony and energy in the muscles. Rodin's work mainly based on daily expressions of the body, and in these most common life context, he found the beauty of the bodily expression and developed his aesthetic sense in his sculptures. Therefore, these expressions are genuine and shared by all of us, real to life and human nature.

It might be easy to understand a sculptor's search for inspiration in dance. However, Rodin has a very different view on dance from that of Degas. The stage can be fabulous and the dancers magnificent, but they are not everyday life. For Rodin, the body is the spontaneous articulator of the nature, for Degas, the body is the trained interpreter of civilization.

Why then should Rodin be so fascinated with the Cambodian court dancers? This highlights the differences between the western and eastern concept of bodily aesthetics, and the dances embody these difference concepts: the classical ballet is airy, the Cambodian dance earthy. With bare feet, bent knees, outspreaded legs, firm steps on the ground, the Cambodian dancers were attached to the gravity, they are stable and neat. Their bare arms moved in the air in sharp and neat movements, mediated with momentary pauses. From shoulders to the fingertips, the many angular lines gave each part of the muscle its own presence.

The Cambodian court dances derived from religious ceremony and it maintained lots of imaginary gestures of Gods’ power and human being's fear and worship for the power. Many of the dances are the stories between God and man and the gestures the mimesis of God and man's communication. The eastern religion might be ungraspable for Rodin, what he saw is the liberation of the human bodies in the everyday encounter with religion. Unlike Classic Ballet which sees bodily beauty in the inhuman perfection of graciousness and purity, the traditional eastern dance seeks the relationship between the soil and body.

This very opposing bodily view of eastern traditional dances found their western comrades in Isadora Duncan and Loïe Fuller, the two great creators of new dance and founders of modern dance. No wonder, Rodin would be equally amazed with their arts, only if they have had a chance to meet each other.